Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Speedball 2 - Tournament Review

Speedball 2 - Tournament, developed by Kylotonn Entertainment and published by Ascaron Entertainment.
The Good: Fast-paced gameplay, straightforward controls once you learn them, some interesting power-ups and score bonuses, online tracking features, detailed character models
The Not So Good: Keyboard controls are imprecise and unusable, no tutorials and a sporadically detailed manual, poor teammate AI, stability issues, cumbersome menus
What say you? In the future, soccer (or handball) is slightly less boring: 5/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
With the NFL football season almost over, it’s time we turn out attention to lesser sports. Of course, one of those sports will certainly not be soccer, as the snore-inducting, riot-creating plague is not welcome in the U.S. But what if we brought outlandish violence to the sport to make it more interesting? That is the premise of Speedball 2 – Tournament: no rules, just right. Apparently, everyone played the original Speedball and I missed out, so the series is new to me. The object is to get the ball into the goal by any means necessary, which means actual physical contact. Oh the humanity!

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Speedball 2 – Tournament looks pretty good for a sports game. While the game only comes with four arenas and three basic characters, they are detailed and animated well enough to create a plausible environment of violence. The effects are sporadic at best, especially if you are viewing the game from a wider view (which you will need to in order to play). The style of the presentation mimics any sports title published in the past couple of years, so there are no surprises there. The menu system is unpolished and more trouble than it’s worth to get around. Ball control indicators should be better (players are simply shaded a slightly darker color) as well, but overall the graphics are decent enough and compare well against contemporary titles. The sound is basic for a sports game: background music, unnecessary swearing by the crowd, and repetitive goal celebrations. Speedball 2 - Tournament lacks play-by-play of any kind. And I swear the default music is saying “ice cream!” But in the end, the presentation of Speedball 2 – Tournament holds up.

ET AL.
Speedball 2 - Tournament plays like a more violent version of soccer with some alternative methods of scoring. The game lacks a tutorial (just a training mode against no opponent) so finding out where the alternative methods of scoring are located is tough: I still can’t figure out where the stupid impact domes are as the manual lacks a picture of them (took me a while to find the ramps as well). The game comes with a number of single player modes: single knock-out games, a cup tournament, and the league career. In the cup mode, you face an opponent twice, and if you beat them, you move on to the next most difficult level of competition, while league mode involves a larger schedule. Both modes feature the ability to customize your lineup, upgrade player stats using earned cash, and hire superior free agents if you save up. While the single player modes don’t have the polish or ease-of-use present in most sports games (like standings, for example), they are nice features that can keep you busy for a while. It is fun to follow your team and upgrade needed positions throughout the season. Knock-out games can be customized, choosing which score bonuses to use. While Speedball 2 – Tournament comes with a large number of different teams to compete against, there are only four arenas to compete in, although they are all the same from a gameplay standpoint anyway. Multiplayer games allow you to customize (but obviously not upgrade) your team for online competition. While an online league would be cool, Speedball 2 – Tournament does include support for clans and ladders and keeps track of your stats. You must register outside of the game before embarking in online games: a minor inconvenience.

Speedball 2 – Tournament features two sets of controls: classic and extended. The main difference is additional buttons for actions using the extended version, where in the classic mode they are all bound to the same button. You will need an analogue gamepad in order to play Speedball 2 – Tournament: moving your character using keyboard buttons will make it impossible to aim. If you’ve played any sports game in the past ten years, the controls of Speedball 2 – Tournament will make sense once you learn the layout: pass, tackle, shoot, check, jump, dodge, sprint, plus the ability to set overall team strategy and switch to another player or the goal keeper. The learning curve of Speedball 2 – Tournament is small once you get the control scheme down. Probably the hardest aspect of the game is aiming, especially when you are going for the ramps, but practice makes perfect.

The primary goal is to score goals (coincidence? I think not), which are worth 10 points each. You can gain additional points by shooting the ball at stars located along the side of the arena; stars are worth a permanent one-point increase per star if they are kept on (the other team can turn them off). In addition, you can shoot the ball through ramps (located next to the stars) which will grant a 1.5x or 2x bonus to goals and stars scoring. The ramps seem to be overly powerful and since it’s really difficult to shoot it in there, games can quickly get out of hand if one team has a double bonus. Electric fields can charge the ball, making them too hot for your opponent to handle, and teleport gates can send the ball to a different area of the map. Speedball 2 – Tournament also includes a number of randomly-placed power-ups that alter abilities (like speed), instantly transfer the ball, or reverse the controls, among other things. You can also pick up equipment to increase your stats.

Games in Speedball 2 – Tournament are short (90 second halves), brutal, and fast-paced: pretty much the opposite of real-life soccer. The game does play like a classic soccer or hockey game: maneuvering the ball up the “pitch” and to your forwards. It’s really easy to get behind the defense, as the combination of the “attack” team strategy, sprint command, and overall dumb AI makes it very easy for one-on-one encounters with the goalie. The computer-controlled players exhibit a number of dumb moves, namely moving away from the ball at inopportune times. Most of your goals are made off rebounds, and mandatory careful aiming makes goals less frequent. The original elements of Speedball 2 – Tournament make the game slightly more interesting than a basic sports game, though at its heart Speedball 2 – Tournament is soccer. I have experienced a number of technical issues with the game: locking up the computer when quitting, graphics disappearing after goals, and general slow performance and long load times. While I would assume not everyone would run into the same frequency of issues I have, the generally unpolished nature of the game extends to stability.

IN CLOSING
Speedball 2 – Tournament is fun in short bursts, which thankfully will be the amount of time spent playing the game. The game takes soccer and kicks it up a notch, introducing more violent hits and alternative scoring methods. The graphics are nice, but the menus could have used a more usable design. The single player and online features will keep interested players going for a while, but the repetitive nature of the gameplay and poor AI makes Speedball 2 – Tournament just an average game. The issues with Speedball 2 - Tournament balance out the innovative features: gamepad requirement, lockups and crashes, dim AI, and the poor menu system. Speedball 2 – Tournament will certainly have an audience with people who’d like a fast-paced version of soccer, but the game just feels incomplete and in need of some sparkle.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Rising Eagle: Futuristic Infantry Warfare Review

Rising Eagle: Futuristic Infantry Warfare, developed and published by Invasion Interactive.
The Good: Focus on squad play through distinct classes, futuristic without being implausible, hacking turrets is inventive and appropriately challenging, online stat tracking, low price
The Not So Good: No AI bots, some minor issues
What say you? This online shooter has a number of noteworthy innovative features: 6/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
Online first person shooters is an especially strong genre on the PC, and I have certainly been known to really enjoy them. Smaller developers have been able to use Internet distribution to dramatically cut costs; this also allows games to reach a global audience without ever appearing in stores. Myopic review sites ignore this growing aspect of the PC gaming market, focusing their attention only on games from big publishers that bring advertising dollars. But not so here! I’ll gladly review Rising Eagle: Futuristic Infantry Warfare from Israel’s Invasion Interactive and see if it’s worth your time in the land of big budget shooters.

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Rising Eagle is very visually similar to War Rock, meaning it’s a bit behind the curve in today’s shooter market. This is to be expected, I think, as the game comes from a smaller developer. The game obviously lacks the visual splendor of Call of Duty 4, but as long as the game is playable (which it is) then I’m fine with the graphics. The environments of the game are generally bland with occasional detail (like cement trucks in construction zones) and feel like a game level than an actual location. The weapon models are slight alterations of existing firearms, since the game takes place in the near future. Rising Eagle just simply doesn’t feature the exacting detail and crispness that other games present. There are some nice aspects to the graphics: the bullet holes that appear on objects when impacted and deploying spider mines comes with a good animation. One thing Rising Eagle does feature is destructible buildings: you can take out windows, fences, and even walls if you shoot at it enough. The strategic implications of this are interesting and this air of realism is much preferred over the static environments of most online shooters. The audio in Rising Eagle is pretty standard fare: weapons are convincing and the background music fits the game well. Overall, the graphics and sound of Rising Eagle are exactly what I would expect coming from a independent source, and hopefully the general public won’t be turned away simply because it doesn’t look as good as other shooters.

ET AL.
Rising Eagle: Futuristic Infantry Warfare is an online-only first person shooter, which means you’ll have to use a Gamespy account in order to play. This also means the game lacks AI bots, something which is a concern considering the low populations seen on the servers (most players are from Europe and Israel). The game involves clashing American, European, and Chinese forces (strongly reminiscent of the recent Battlefield games); I would have thought a game from Israel would feature a more Israeli-focused game, which would have been more interesting if only from a purely superficial standpoint of changed character models and weapons. Rising Eagle keeps track of your progress online, handing out qualifications if you’ve earned a kill with a class and your team wins, an expertise in your favorite class, ranks, and medals. Higher ranks don’t unlock additional weapons so stat tracking is just nice to see but does not impact the gameplay. Skills points can be earned through kills, wins, hacking, obeying commands, and capturing a flag. It is easy to find online matches (Rising Eagle uses an in-game Gamespy browser), and games consist of classic team deathmatch (called search and destroy) and flag-capturing conquest modes.

Rising Eagle features a structured order of battle: players can choose a position at the start of the game as a member (or leader) of three squads, similar to America’s Army. Offering fixed squad positions cuts down on spamming of a single, powerful class (the engineer). Classes include the basic riflemen, sniper, battle hacker, and armored battle engineer. The battle hacker can access turrets, turning them on and off, syncing their aim with your gun (cool), or hacking enemy emplacements. The hacking mini-game is really neat and also realistic: you must set a series of inputs in a computer logic sequence (using and, not, or, and xor) to make the output “true.” This makes a whole lot more sense than a pipe rotation game or equally arbitrary task. Unfortunately, the turrets are not common enough to make the battle hacker class that worthwhile. The armored battle engineer is given a suit that can carry machine guns, rocket launchers, and other heavy weaponry. Thankfully, the class restrictions limit one of these per map, as they get a real firepower advantage. You can take an ABE out with headshots, however, or a well-placed air strike; they sure are fun to pilot. Squad or platoon leaders get a set of command tools similar to the commander mode in recent Battlefield games; you can call down air strikes, EMPs, smoke, or scans to help your team’s cause. The demolitions man is great for defending, as spider charges can surprise many foes. An oddity is the inability to change classes or teams during the game; you will need to disconnect from the server and join back up. Rounds are usually pretty short (around ten minutes) and you can change after the completion of a game, but this makes experimenting with different classes almost impossible.

The HUD of Rising Eagle is typical for a first person shooter: friendly units are indicated on-screen, which is a good thing since friendly fire is on. Everyone in the game is extremely well-armed: most people are given twenty clips (!!!) of ammunition, and the only player who will ever run out of bullets before dying is the ABE. Typical classes will be given a primary weapon, a sidearm, grenades, a sledge hammer, and the ability to kick and punch opponents. Primary weapons are dependent on the class you have selected and can include the typical assault rifle, grenade launcher, machine gun, sniper rifle, anti-material rifle (like an anti-tank gun), and anti-personnel guided missile. The ABE gets a wide assortment of scary weapons: heavy machine guns, automatic cannons, automatic grenade launchers, anti-personnel guided missiles, precise guided missiles, short range rockets, and a demolition hammer. ABE units can carry four of those weapons at a time, and missile ammunition is quite limited. All weapons are given a zoom function, though when zoomed in you can’t move your sight as fast. There seem to be some minor bugs in dealing with weapons: I was using the machine gun and was shooting an enemy (even getting the “hit” indicator) but they never died; this is the only gun I have experienced this with.

Rising Eagle takes a more tactical approach to the genre, although there are some futuristic enhancements to spice up the gameplay. Units can sprint very fast and jump very high, making the vertical nature of the game’s levels come into play. Typically inaccessible areas like rooftops are now in play, and the result is that you’re going to be shot at from multiple directions you wouldn’t normally be shot at from. Overall, Rising Eagle plays like a more methodical version of (dare I say it?) Call of Duty 4. Health is a bit high for a tactical shooter (people are more healthy in the future) so you need to unload a lot of bullets in order to kill someone, but in general the game is balanced well and there are plenty of hiding spaces scattered around the destroyed cities that make up a majority of the maps. It’s hard to tell how the game would play with a full compliment of players since servers have been decidedly empty in the afternoon (Eastern U.S. time); in fact, I had to download and play the demo in order to find some competition. But you can tell the potential is clearly there for a slightly unique experience, and that’s all we need in today’s over-saturated online shooter market.

IN CLOSING
Rising Eagle: Futuristic Infantry Warfare adds just enough new features to make it stand out. The game is futuristic without being outlandish: higher jumps are fun and weapons are better without being overpowering. The game is designed to be played with full squads receiving orders from their commanders and killing stuff; the set class structure means all squads will be balanced and you won’t be stuck with three other demolition soldiers. Joining a game is easy and Rising Eagle keeps track of your stats online. Each of the game’s classes are fun to play and offer a slew of weapons you can use to blow up walls and destroy the malleable environments. I enjoy the style of gameplay and the small enhancements playing in the future presents. Is the game worth $20? Certainly. Hopefully the servers will become more populated after both of my regular readers peruse this review. Most of the issues I have with the game are very minor, so fans of the genre looking for a somewhat distinctive game should check out Rising Eagle.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

PIQE: Chain of Puzzles Review

PIQE: Chain of Puzzles, developed and published by AlbyMedia.
The Good: Really challenging
The Not So Good: Puzzles come with hardly any explanation, all eighty-one puzzles are identical each time you play, you must play through each puzzle in one sitting
What say you? A confusing, limited, repetitive, and overly difficult logic game: 3/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
One of my favorite games for the Wii (yes, I have a Wii) is Big Brain Academy. The combination of straightforward intelligence-based puzzles and a fast pace makes for some good family fun. It’s not surprising, then, that logic puzzle games have started appearing in ever increasing numbers. Today’s entry is PIQE, a game that cleverly disguises “IQ” in the title. You sly dog!

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
The graphics of PIQE are simple at best. The game is very utilitarian and minimal, presenting just basic 2-D puzzles on a static background. There isn’t any overall theme, and the “action” is only punctuated by subtle background music (which I actually do enjoy). There are no special effects when you complete a puzzle (or even an indication of getting a puzzle correct). Even though PIQE would take up a minimal amount of screen space, you can’t play the game in a window. We are obviously not looking towards PIQE for outstanding graphics and sound, and you can tell by how short this section of the review is.

ET AL.
PIQE is a logic puzzle game that features eighty-one puzzles. And that’s it. As you’ll see, PIQE suffers from a severe case of minimalism. First off, while the game does feature eighty-one puzzles, there are really only twenty-seven unique puzzles at three difficulty levels (easy, medium, and hard). The puzzles come in the same order each game and feature the same exact numbers, colors, and shapes, even though these could easily be mixed. This means you’re playing the exact same game over and over. In addition, you must complete all 81 puzzles in one sitting, which can easily take a couple of hours. PIQE certainly lacks any replay value, making it an extremely tough sell.

If that weren’t enough, the puzzles make little to no sense. The directions are too vague to be helpful. Take the first puzzle as an example: “find differing element?” That’s it? I honestly have no idea what the game wants me to do most of the time. And this is on easy. PIQE also fails to tell you if you are correct, making trying to figure out what you are supposed to do even tougher. The game does provide a results screen at the end, but this is essentially useless. The puzzles are quite challenging and PIQE certainly requires a great deal of thought, but the featureless presentation and outright confusion surrounding the game will turn pretty much everyone away. I did find the puzzles I understood to be good enough, but PIQE has too many pitfalls surrounding the occasionally enjoyable puzzle.

IN CLOSING
I think there is a decent logic game buried somewhere deep within PIQE, but the game has way too many shortcomings to even come close to being a recommended title. Who thought that playing all eighty-one puzzles in a row was a good idea? Who thought that featuring the same exact puzzles in the same order with no variations was a good idea? Who thought that providing cryptic instructions was a good idea? It’s like the developers are trying to make you hate their game. The sad thing is most of the problems could be easily fixed. Put in some random variations. Allow the user to play a random mix of ten puzzles at a time, or even select the specific puzzles they want. PIQE is far too limited to be enjoyable. It seems that most (if not all) of the problems could potentially be fixed in the future, so there is hope for the game in the long run. But as it stands, there are much less frustrating ways of testing your brain.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Imagine Poker 3 Review

Imagine Poker 3, developed and published by Candywriter.
The Good: Historical figures are cute, nice visual style, fast pace, persistent grading system
The Not So Good: No online play, questionable AI opponents, betting interface could be improved, restricted to five players per table, only Texas hold-em rules, constrained tournament format, limited sound in Windows version
What say you? A simple Texas hold-em poker game that’s too easy due to primitive AI and lacks several features: 5/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
I like poker games. The combination of strategy, perseverance, and tasty, tasty chips piques my interest. I’m not good enough to play for real money, but I have enjoyed my time with titles such as STACKED and World Series of Poker (which I have to review, but it keeps crashing so I can’t play for more than five minutes). That brings us to Imagine Poker 3, apparently the third installment of a poker series I didn’t know existed. This game features historical figures to play against (that’s the whole Imagine part, I suppose), so you have the chance to lose your house to Genghis Khan. Greedy bastard.

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
The graphics of Imagine Poker 3 look good for a poker game, thanks to highly detailed and well animated character models. Each of the twenty characters in Imagine Poker 3 display some humorous reactions to positive and negative events in the game (including very excited wins). The characters are also easily recognizable, and even though they are rendered in 2-D, they look much better than if Imagine Poker 3 was presented in all three dimensions. Imagine Poker 3 also includes several locations to play in, although the backgrounds will probably be ignored by most players. The rest of the graphical design is pretty standard for the genre, though I like the chip stacks: they don’t repeat and are a great visual aid. As for sound, Imagine Poker 3 features really basic sound effects: just chips and cards. It would have been interesting hearing the characters respond to in-game action, rather than just seeing it. Imagine Poker 3 lacks background music (which is fine) and voice commentary is only available in the Macintosh version. Still, the graphics more than make up for the auditory shortcomings in Imagine Poker 3, creating a good theme and wonderful environment in which to play.

ET AL.
Imagine Poker 3 is generally your average Texas hold-em poker game. Its unique feature is that it has historical figures as your opponents: Napoleon, the Tooth Fairy, Dracula, Stalin, and Neptune, to name a few. This is a little gimmicky, but the great character design makes it more palatable. This alone won’t make for a distinctive title, and the remainder of the game doesn’t feature enough to make Imagine Poker 3 stand out from the crowd. The first thing you’ll do is create a character for yourself; while you can set your country of origin, you cannot pick a character form, so you will be a blank space during gameplay. Games come in tournament and custom form. Tournaments are done as a series of custom games at a set sequence of levels against different opponents; there isn’t a reason to play tournaments instead of single-round custom games, as you will eventually lose and offset any experience gained. Unlike real poker games that have winners from various tables come together, tournaments in Imagine Poker 3 are simply a series of matches that don’t feel like you are part of a larger event. Custom games allow you to set the specific opponents, room, chip color, and total chips at the table. All games are limited to no more than five players: while this reduces the number of bad hands, it’s less fun to play with an unrealistically low number of people. Imagine Poker 3 only features Texas hold-em, as other version of poker are not included. You can customize the betting rules (limit or no limit) and blinds (from 10/20 to 40/80, and automatic increasing), but having just one type of poker is yet another limitation. The game keeps track of everyone’s progress (human and AI players) and assigns a letter grade; this is a pretty cool feature that adds a bit of RPG flavor to the game. It almost makes up for the lack of multiplayer. Almost.

Imagine Poker 3 requires the use of the keyboard and mouse. While you can use keyboard shortcuts for commands (“C” for check), you must bet with the mouse. Betting is annoying at first: you must press and hold the “bet” button and then scroll through a long list of bets. If you simply press the “B” key, the minimum bet will automatically be chosen. Using the mouse wheel would be better, which is a feature from STACKED. Imagine Poker 3 features the Poker Ghost utility make by the developer, which computes the strength of your hand just like on TV. Unfortunately, the Poker Ghost is not automatic (you must click on the ghost icon) and it takes a good five seconds to compute the odds. While this doesn’t seem like a long time, five seconds per card adds up over an entire game. There should be an option to turn the Poker Ghost on permanently, which would also eliminate the wait since it can run in the background. The AI of Imagine Poker 3 is disappointing for a couple of reasons, namely an over aggressive nature and general dumbness. AI opponents will bet big when they don’t have a chance to win. They will fold even after they have invested a large portion of the chips into the pot. The small blind will fold, letting the big blind win. AI players that don’t flop anything will always check, making it way too easy to win. There are plenty of other examples of odd behavior that the AI exhibits, and since Imagine Poker 3 lacks multiplayer, the game dies by its poor AI.

IN CLOSING
Imagine Poker 3 is a couple of features away from being a notable poker title: online play and improved AI. While the official site purports the “artificial intelligence module that is sure to challenge even poker professionals,” I found the AI to be too aggressive and lay unintelligent bets far too often. Since the game lacks a difficulty setting, you’re stuck with the same level of intelligence the entire time. Of course, I could be wrong, but I simply found the AI not to be up to snuff. The inclusion of historical figures is a bit gimmicky but it works because of the spot-on animations and detail. I like how the game tracks performance through the grading system, giving you something to shoot for long-term as well as rivalries against AI foes. The inclusion of the Poker Ghost utility is nice, but performance should be more instantaneous. Placing bets should also be more straightforward than the drop-down menu that requires you to hold down the mouse button. The remainder of Imagine Poker 3 is fairly standard for the poker genre. Playing Imagine Poker 3 is fun, but the original features and streamlined gameplay are offset by the absent components. You would think these things would have been added in the third version of a game. The inclusion of historical figures is interesting and the gameplay is decent, but Imagine Poker 3 is missing several key features that would make it a distinguished game.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Battle Ball Review

Battle Ball, developed and published by Mindwave Games.
The Good: Simple but relatively deep gameplay, games are short, beginner and veteran modes of play, online stat tracking and game betting, free to play with an inexpensive optional lifetime membership
The Not So Good: Rudimentary graphics
What say you? An addictive (and free) online 3-D Pong game with MMO-like features: 6/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
Pong. The name brings up images of classic video gaming, being the first commercially successful game thanks to its easy to learn mechanics and addictive nature. There have been plenty of knock-offs since the game was released in 1972, and next in line is Battle Ball. This title takes the Pong gameplay into three dimensions and adds in some MMO elements. Will Battle Ball provide compelling online competition?

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Easily the worst feature of Battle Ball is the very basic presentation. The game looks like it was made by one guy (was it?), featuring a very frugal game world that provides the minimum of what is required to play the game. This isn’t completely terrible, however, since there isn’t much to distract you from the gameplay. The interface is designed well, clearly displaying the ball spin and assisting you with placing your paddle in the correct location. The game’s browser has the tendency to truncate text as well; although you can still make out the numbers, it shows the lack of polish with the game. Sound is low-cost as well, featuring just the basic impact effects. Though I will admit the “whooshing” of the ball is enjoyable and informative. Well, we’re obviously not playing Battle Ball for the graphics or sound.

ET AL.
Battle Ball takes Pong and moves it into three dimensions, so you will need to bounce the ball by moving your paddle up, down, left, and right. This obviously makes the game much harder than classic 2-D Pong titles, and the ability to add spin to the ball and careen off walls makes for some interesting results. This is an online game (you need to have an active Internet connection in order to log in and play), though training games are available against a challenging AI opponent. Battle Ball is free to play; there is an optional $14.95 one-time fee for a lifetime membership that unlocks additional rules options and removes the daily coin limit. So if you like it, you can certainly invest a humble amount of money to support the developer. In addition, you can actually cash in your game coins for real money (2000 coins = $20), though you have to play a whole heck of a lot for that amount to accumulate.

The controls for the more basic challenge mode involve simply moving the mouse to return the ball. If you are moving while you hit the ball, spin will be added, making the ball curve and subsequently more difficult for your opponent to return. You can also play with more advanced (meaning complicated) competition controls that involve rotating your paddle with the WASD keys and using the mouse button to apply power when you hit the ball. This adds another layer of complexity to the game and should satisfy the needs of more veteran players. Like in volleyball, you must serve in order to score (something it took me a couple of games to realize) and the first person to the predetermined limit wins. Physics in Battle Ball seem to be accurate; the use of varied arena shapes (boxes, tubes, hexagons) can make for some interesting trajectories. The gameplay of Battle Ball has just enough depth to keep you interested for a while. In addition, the online matches are quick (usually only a couple of minutes) so you never get bored by drawn-out games.

Battle Ball is an online-oriented title. Challenges are made to other players in the lobby, and you can customize the game rules and bet on your contest using the in-game currency. Paid members can introduce rotating levels and varied score limits to the rules, while everyone can adjust the amount of gravity and air resistance for a more (or less) difficult game. Most of the players seem to be from Europe as the server is popular around 3 P.M. Eastern (8-10 P.M. in Europe) and the competitors speak languages I am not smart enough to understand. Battle Ball does offer several “happy hours” that offer bonus coins to encourage people to be online simultaneously. The betting system in Battle Ball is well designed: it gives incentive for beginners to play expert players, as you can request different levels of bets for each player. In addition, you can also bet on other people’s games (and make a good amount of money from it); the amount you win is determined by the bets made on your opponent. You don’t even have to play to enjoy Battle Ball: you can just satisfy your gambling problem by betting on other players (and it’s all fake money, so no harm is done). Stats for each player are tracked and recorded online, so you can size up your competition in-game or on the web. You can level up your character and increase your paddle skills, although this is a slow process unless you defeat some heavily favored opponents. Battle Ball also offers organized tournaments if you are in to that sort of thing.

IN CLOSING
Despite appearances, Battle Ball is an enjoyable online game. The mechanics are intuitive, the online features are robust, and the gameplay is quite addictive. Presenting two levels of control makes the game challenging for both beginning and experienced players. The betting system allows for another level of interest in the game beyond simply playing matches. Games are certainly intense if the score is close (and even if it’s not) thanks to the short match length. The online community seems friendly and fair; I certainly had a much more enjoyable time playing Battle Ball as a beginning player than Threadspace: Hyperbol. And it’s free. So there’s no reason not to check it out!

Friday, January 18, 2008

Jack’s Bouncy Qubes Review

Jack’s Bouncy Qubes, developed and published by Iik Games.
The Good: Intuitive controls, informative user interface, simple but effective graphics, several game modes
The Not So Good: Mouse control could be improved, less colors should be used in introductory levels
What say you? A Q*bert-like game with interesting gameplay: 6/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
With all of the clones of Tetris, Pac-Man, and Asteroids around the Internet, it’s surprising that we don’t seen more Q*bert games. The color-changing game from the early 80’s was one of my favorites back when the Atari 2600 ruled the gaming world. Answering my calls for an update is Jack’s Bouncy Qubes, a poorly spelled title from Iik Games (probably the sound Q*bert makes when you step on him…IIK!!). Jack’s Bouncy Qubes has you bouncing on cubes (surprise!), changing their color to make adjacent cubes match.

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Jack’s Bouncy Qubes features a very bright color scheme. I like the design of Jack (reminiscent of Grimace) and the cubes are rubbery and respond convincingly to bouncing. The game is easy to navigate as your perspective is fixed, allowing for the game to be in 3-D while still being good for novices. The backgrounds are repetitive, however, featuring only one color in a “smoky” presentation. Still, I like what Jack’s Bouncy Qubes brings in terms of graphics. The sound is typical for the genre, with appropriate effects accompanying the in-game action. The background music is annoying, though. Overall, Jack’s Bouncy Qubes features good graphics and sound for the genre and the vivid palate is certainly distinctive.

ET AL.
Jack’s Bouncy Qubes combines the color-stomping gameplay of Q*bert with classic match-three (or, in this case, match-four) puzzle games. The idea is pretty simple: move Jack around the board, changing colored squares in order to make matches. You can control the character with the keyboard or the mouse, although mouse control is more limited than I would like to see. While you can keep the mouse button (or keyboard) held down to quick movement, a single click can’t move Jack automatically across the board. Each level in the game uses the same color sequence: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, purple, and back to red. Jack’s Bouncy Qubes features a good interface that displays what color adjacent squares will turn if you choose to land on them (just in case you forgot the rainbow). However, I would like to see introductory levels use fewer colors to make matching easier early on. Once you make a four-square match, you have a couple of seconds before the cubes explode to make additional adjacent matches for bonus points. You have time to accumulate large amounts of bonus points if you plan correctly. Large matches can produce gems; collecting gems will grant even more bonus points for your coffers. You will need to move off your squares before they explode, as you can lose lives in the game. This actually penalizes players who make too many matches simultaneously, as you might not have an escape path when a match is made.

Jack’s Bouncy Qubes features a number of game modes. The standard time-limited game mode requires you to clear a specified number of matches before time runs out. Free play eliminates the time limit for a more relaxed pace. The survival mode quickens the pace and getting caught up in an explosion results in an instant loss. Puzzle mode requires you to make a match of a specified color and shape before time runs out; this is an interesting game mode that adds an additional layer of complexity to the game. You can get lucky with your intended shape (since the boards are randomized) or come up with a tough objective, resulting in some tense gameplay as time runs out. Jack’s Bouncy Qubes has an amalgamation of gameplay features that isn’t too common in the genre, so overall the game seems fresh and exciting. The fast-paced gameplay can feature some tense moments, and Jack’s Bouncy Qubes also requires a good amount of planning in real-time in order to maximize your success.

IN CLOSING
Jack’s Bouncy Qubes takes a couple of gameplay ideas and successfully combines them into a successful and innovative game. While on the surface Jack’s Bouncy Qubes looks like a simple Q*bert clone, the title is more sophisticated and subsequently requires more skill thanks to its match-four element. The controls are uncomplicated, although I would like to be able to point at a square across the board with my mouse and have Jack move there automatically. The interface assists the player in determining where to move next to manipulate adjacent squares. Reducing the color count in early levels would easy new players into the game more instead of having to worry about six colors for the entire game. Multiple game modes keeps the action varied beyond the standard time-limited games. The theme of Jack’s Bouncy Qubes is great, creating a fanciful environments in which to stomp on cubes. Jack’s Bouncy Qubes is an entertaining puzzle/action game and quite fun, while providing enough of a challenge to keep you interested.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Cryptex of Time Review

Cryptex of Time, developed and published by SOLO Development.
The Good: Circular board makes the game seem original, multiple game modes
The Not So Good: Some gems are too similar in appearance, can’t quickly string several moves together, no indication of when new gems will appear, can’t select specific rules for free games
What say you? Good features and a unique presentation makes this match-three game somewhat distinctive: 6/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
One of the best selling books of all time is The Da Vinci Code. I’ve never read it and could only stand about 30 minutes of the movie (even with Tom Hanks’s manly charm) so I never understood what all the hubbub is about. The author is apparently responsible for coming up with the term cryptex for a thing you rotate to unlock. They also used one at the conclusion of Treasure Hunters, which I found to be at least mildly entertaining. This brings us to Cryptex of Time, a puzzle game that involves rotating wheels of gems in order to match them. Will Cryptex of Time be a “Draconian devil” (is that a good thing?) or is it “so dark” like “the con of Man” (probably not a good thing)?

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Cryptex of Time looks fairly decent for a puzzle game. The main cryptex is rendered in 3-D and can be rotated on its vertical axis in order to access the entire cylinder. The cryptex itself features some nice detail with the jewels that adorn it, although some of the jewels are too similar in appearance, making the game more difficult. There is also the usual assortment of special effects when you clear some jewels and remove a wheel. Overall, the game has a clean appearance that promotes ease of use. The sound is also typical for a puzzle game: some average background music and effects that relate to the gameplay. Notable is the gem matching effect, which is well done. Overall, Cryptex of Time falls squarely in the middle of the genre in terms of presentation: not outstanding but not terrible.

ET AL.
While Cryptex of Time certainly has its roots in a classic matching game, it adds some unique features that makes it different enough from previous titles in the genre. Cryptex of Time comes with a story mode which introduces additional complexities to the game while introducing different themed areas (like Mayan and Egyptian). The puzzle board of Cryptex of Time is a cylinder that contains rows of gems that must be rotated in order to match three or more adjacent gems. Because you can only rotate the wheels of the cryptex horizontally, most of your matches will occur vertically. This alone makes Cryptex of Time somewhat more difficult than other games in the genre because of the limited nature of the cryptex. The basic gameplay is unique and manipulating the cryptex provides a good challenge for both beginners and puzzle veterans. The controls are simple, as you grab and move the wheels with the mouse and rotate your view using the right mouse button. It can be difficult to see gems on the other side of the cryptex (since they will be blocked by the side facing you), but you can always rotate your view before making a move. Since you can chain together matches, the game locks out moving the cryptex if you’ve made additional matches you might not be aware of; this can interrupt the flow of the game. Still, Cryptex of Time offers up a fairly unique challenge for the puzzle genre.

Cryptex of Time introduces varied rules that mix up the gameplay and change the level of difficulty. This makes the game less repetitive in the long run, something which tends to plague puzzle games. New wheels can be introduced during the game at normal or fast speeds, or never at all. Matches you didn’t specifically find are removed automatically, but this option can be turned off as well. Some puzzles will limit the amount of rotations you can make, prevent gems from falling down to fill in space, increase the number of matches required to clear gems, or introduce additional colors to the puzzles. In general, more difficult combinations are introduced later on in the campaign, and the open rules structure makes for some interesting gameplay recipes later on. While the game does play the same, the small changes certainly make Cryptex of Time feel different over time. Cryptex of Time can get quite challenging when more restrictive rules are introduced, and gameplay can range from fast-paced play sessions to drawn-out strategic matches: the amount of flexibility is commendable. You can’t specifically set a rules combination in “free play” mode, so it’s not as “free” as I would like. There are also some special gems that explode large areas of the cryptex to complete the gameplay picture.

IN CLOSING
Overall, Cryptex of Time is an enjoyable puzzle game thanks to unique mechanics and flexible game rules. The title distinguishes itself from “common” match-three puzzle games with its exclusive puzzle format. Controls are intuitive, gameplay is straightforward, and Cryptex of Time features enough variety to keep you coming back for more. Just when you think you have the game figured out, the story mode throws a match-five, move-limited, six-color cryptex at you. I would like the ability to specify the rules in “free play” mode (maybe this could be introduced in a patch), but this is a relatively small complaint in an otherwise solid game. A fresh take on the genre, Cryptex of Time takes a classic idea and expands upon it enough to produce a notable title.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

SimCity Societies Review

SimCity Societies, developed by Tilted Mill Entertainment and published by Electronic Arts.
The Good: Simplified freeform gameplay, lots of buildings with useful filters, meticulous building and Sim attributes, achievements provide long-term goals, easily modified, random map generator, detailed graphics
The Not So Good: Not challenging, micromanaging special abilities is annoying, more achievements would increase replay value, minimap is useless and information icons are too small, poor performance
What say you? It’s not SimCity 5, but it’s still an enjoyable sandbox city builder aimed at a wider audience: 7/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
PC gamers are a finicky bunch: they have certain expectations for sequels and if they are not met, the backlash is severe. Take SimCity Societies as an example. Some people were expecting a true sequel to SimCity 4, and when the game ended up not strictly being SimCity 5, hardcore gamers were up in arms. Of course, SimCity Societies is not named SimCity 5, so I’m not sure what people were expecting. What they got was the removal of zones and railroads and the introduction of themes and values. You know, society stuff, similar in premise to City Life. I received this game late enough to play with the second patch, which adds a “strategic” mode for veteran players who thought the “creative” mode lacked any challenge (no disagreement here) or purpose. I’m sure you’ve seen my score for SimCity Societies; how come I like it while everyone else doesn't? Details to follow.

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
SimCity Societies features some very nice graphics, but they certainly come at a steep price. All of the buildings are highly detailed which is impressive considering how many there are. The same building will always look the same, as SimCity Societies lacks the somewhat randomized appearances present in SimCity 4. Most of the buildings are animated as well, pumping out pollution and such, which really makes your city realistic. You city can feature an overall theme, although this seems to be limited to simple road textures rather than dramatic overhauls of building appearances. The Sims that populate your city are also varied in appearance, although you'll be zoomed out so much most of the time that you won't notice. SimCity Societies is probably the most visually impressive city builder I've seen, as its level of detail is unmatched. And now for the downside: the game runs very slowly. I expect to be able to run the game at high (or at least medium) settings with no problems, but once your city fills about half of the map, the game starts to chug considerable to almost unplayable levels. I also tried the game on a more modest setup and SimCity Societies bordered on being a slideshow, even at the lowest detail settings. Only the most robust machines will be able to run SimCity Societies at high settings and decent framerates. The sound of SimCity Societies is pretty typical for the genre: bustling city noises and background music that fits your overall theme. SimCity Societies also (not surprisingly) features the “Simlish” featured in other contemporary Sim games. If you have the computer to run it, SimCity Societies features an outstanding presentation that brings your communities alive.

ET AL.
Like other SimCity games, Societies puts you in charge of a new community and allows you to develop your city as you see fit. There are two modes of play to choose from: the trivially easy creative mode (complete with unlimited money and free play options) and the more difficult (but still easy) strategic mode, introduced in the second patch. While previous SimCity games weren't the toughest nuts to crack, SimCity Societies offers absolutely no challenge since your influx of cash is terribly large. While this is obviously great for beginners, veteran players might become bored rather quickly at the lack of a challenge. The strategic mode does fix this somewhat, incorporating daily maintenance costs and tougher-to-please Sims. These changes do make SimCity Societies more of a challenge, especially if you make your way up to the “hardcore” and “nightmare” difficulty levels. Still, SimCity Societies was clearly aimed towards more creative people who just want a simple open environment instead of a complex strategic model.

New cities can be customized just as in previous games, although you have less control of the specifics of the landscape. SimCity Societies provides a random name generator for your new town (a neat feature) and you can pick the overall climate for your city. Advanced map options include control over the amount of water, vegetation, elevation, erosion, and overall terrain texture. You can even import a height map for real-world geography. SimCity Societies is also built for mods, as most everything in the game is contained in XML files ready to be altered. The game also features an online exchange (the only sniff of online play SimCity Societies offers) where you can share your mods and cities.

There are two resources in play in SimCity Societies: values and money. Each of the game's six values (productivity, prosperity, creativity, spirituality, authority, and knowledge) are produced and consumed by the various buildings you will place. Unlike other SimCity games, you don't just zone residential, commercial, and industrial areas: you will place the specific buildings you want around your city. You will need to place power-producing plants, houses, workplaces, and venues, in addition to streets, decorations, and landscaping. In order for buildings to function, you need to have a positive or neutral balance in the values they use. The buildings that produce and consume values are mixed (meaning not all houses consume and not all businesses produce) so it takes some planning to balance out your values. You will also need to keep your workplaces full of workers in order to earn the city the maximum amount of money, so having the same number of housed workers as available jobs is another goal in the game. Venues are used to keep everyone happy, and having enough of them for everyone to visit on the way home from work is important to keep your city running smoothly. All work and no play makes for rogue Sims that shut down money-producing businesses. Decorations (fountains, billboards, parks) are intended for evening out small value deficits.

More buildings are continually unlocked as you reach certain goals (like population or value production levels) and there is an impressive number of structures you will build over time. The cities of SimCity Societies are far less realistic than in other SimCity games: while you need power and fire stations, you can construct a functional city devoid of schools, hospitals, and even police (although your residents might not be very happy about it). The game takes the idea of values and themes to heart, and a lot of veteran players will dismiss the unrealistic flexibility of SimCity Societies as being, well, unrealistic. Contrary to what a lot of reviews have said, proximity of buildings does matter: placing a nightclub next to a coal power plant makes it less desirable by lowering the happiness patrons will receive. While decorations can be placed anywhere on the map and power structures and be segregated to the corner with no ill effects, you do have to keep industrial businesses away from populated and recreational areas as you build. You will also need to make sure that venues are close enough (and plentiful enough) for Sims to use them. The game does come with a couple of ideas for themes, such as “romantic” or “authoritarian” towns; I usually just pick two or three values to concentrate on when I start a new city and go from there. SimCity Societies is really more about experimentation and seeing what will happen than ultimate realism.

SimCity Societies features and almost excellent interface. Since there are so many buildings to construct, the game has a good set of filters for finding exactly what you need. You can choose to show only buildings that use a certain value, and then sort those buildings by how much they produce or consume or their capacity. The game does need to have better filters for things like government buildings: they have special icons, so why can’t I sort by them? Also, the game should keep the filter if you select the same option in quick succession: having to press “houses” and then “creativity” five times in a row if I want to feature more varied housing is annoying. Remember those great color overlays from SimCity 4? Well, they are not here; good luck finding things like high crime areas due to the completely useless minimap and lack of colored overlays. Instead, SimCity Societies features hard to read icons that are not helpful at all. SimCity Societies also does a poor job of explaining which buildings do what: half of my buildings were broken during one game, and it was trial and error figuring out which building fixes them.

Some of your buildings will produce special actions. These can range from simple income bonuses to increased happiness at other buildings. These things should be automated as its very annoying to hunt around your city looking for poorly highlighted buildings. This is especially true during fires: you have to find where the fire is, then search for a fire station, click on it, and find where the fire was again, and click on that building. Isn't it the firefighters' job to know where the fire is? Playing an industrial city where fires are common is painfully annoying. SimCity Societies features a pretty sophisticated simulation under the hood, as the game keeps track of all the workers present in the game (while a condo may house 100 people, only 5 of them actually work and appear in the game; this is how the game features large populations without having huge cities). Sims have happiness levels that can be altered by purchasing goods from venues, like wine and furniture (or both!). Special Sims can also appear (there are twenty-seven in all): examples include burglars that steal enhancements, “men in black” that arrest street performers, and tourists followed by pickpockets. While the depth of SimCity Societies might not be present on the surface with the city building, there is a lot of detail when it comes to your city's residents.

As I stated earlier, SimCity Societies is a very easy game: just balance people and jobs and all the values and you'll make tons of money in no time. Strategic mode makes it just a bit harder, but veteran players should have no problems keeping a city running. While SimCity Societies comes with a handful of achievements to shoot for, the potential for more is definitely there. Personally, I would like to see an achievement for all of the two-value combinations (that would be twenty-one total for you non-Math majors). The achievements could be named after real life cities as well: creativity plus spirituality for a “San Francisco” award and low prosperity and low knowledge for “Detroit” (zing!). I like SimCity Societies: it’s a neat take on the genre and there’s a lot of detail when you delve beneath the surface of just placing buildings. I mean, it keeps track of how long someone’s had a CD for and how much happiness it grants: that's pretty impressive.

IN CLOSING
SimCity Societies would probably would have been better off not using the SimCity name, as that moniker begets some expectations that frankly are not met. Those looking for a realistic city builder should steer clear of SimCity Societies, but what the game does offer is a different approach to city management. Balancing your city's values, in addition to the budget, and choosing which values to focus on is the name of the game. If you want to create a prosperous authoritarian village, then go right ahead. This makes the cities look different over time, something that cannot be said for the cookie-cutter burgs of SimCities past. The amount of freedom in SimCity Societies may be too much for some, as there isn't a concrete overall goal (not that there was in SimCity 4) apart from the sporadic achievements that could have been more fleshed out. Most of the negative reviews harp on the lack of authenticity in SimCity Societies, but realism is not the focus. SimCity Societies is more about the interactions and less about the actual city building, so I think most of these people just missed the mark on the intention of the game. Thankfully the game now features the “strategic” mode that offers more of a challenge, but SimCity Societies is really focused on creation rather than challenge. The interface is well designed (for the most part), there are tons of buildings to construct, and the graphics are unmatched (though demanding on your system). Despite a number of annoyances I experienced with the game (most notably the special actions), I enjoyed my time with SimCity Societies and applaud its distinct approach. I think as long as you realize this isn't SimCity 5 and look at the detail of the interactions rather than the lack of realism, you'll have a good time with SimCity Societies as well.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

18 Wheels of Steel: American Long Haul Review

18 Wheels of Steel: American Long Haul, developed by SCS Software and published by ValuSoft.
The Good: Accurate simulation, fairly truthful North American map, company management options
The Not So Good: Tremendously slow pace, no in-game tutorial and partial readme file, severe graphical pop-in even on the highest settings, some major cities are missing and some terrain is way off
What say you? Most people will find it extremely boring, but this budget-priced trucking simulation is enjoyable if you really like to drive: 5/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
Trucking. You know, you can make more money here than in most other industries (I’ve been watching the Roadmaster commercials a bit too much). If only someone could capture the fun and excitement of driving cross-country with little sleep on four-lane highways. But they have! The venerable 18 Wheels of Steel series is back with its sixth iteration: American Long Haul. The studio that brought us the surprisingly decent Bus Driver is back with an (hopefully) enhanced version of their most famous (or infamous) series. Does 18 Wheels of Steel: American Long Haul provide the hot merging action I crave so much?

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
The graphics and sound of 18 Wheels of Steel: American Long Haul is exactly what you would expect for a budget game: passable. Most of the towns in the game feature an almost impressive level of detail, at least at a distance. Towns are equipped with skyscrapers, animated planes and signs, copious amounts of traffic, and enough varied buildings to make each town appear like a real location. The “empty” space between cities is pretty boring, although that’s not totally different from real life. 18 Wheels of Steel: American Long Haul features some nice time of day effects (each second of real time represents a minute in the game), although the Sun coming up at 5 AM is a bit curious (I guess the developers live further north than I do). Weather is also represented well, with falling rain and the occasional snow shower if you venture to Canada. The physics are somewhat suspect, with AI trailers toppling over on sharp turns, and the game features some severe pop-in: distant objects magically appear no matter what your graphical settings are. I think 18 Wheels of Steel: American Long Haul actually looks somewhat worse than Bus Driver, though this probably has to do with the fact that an entire continent is represented here instead of a single city. The audio is just OK: there is some variety in the voices over the CB, but the music is repetitive and the radio stations are limited. Still, for a budget title, 18 Wheels of Steel: American Long Haul isn’t too far behind the curve in terms of presentation.

ET AL.
18 Wheels of Steel: American Long Haul is a single-player game where you run a truck delivery company to make piles and piles of cash. Though a massively multiplayer universe would be a cool addition to the game, it doesn’t surprise me that it’s not included (I’m sure a trucking MMORPG is not too far fetched). You can play single missions where you can choose your origin, destination, and type of goods, but you’ll be doing the same thing in the career mode so there’s no real point in wasting your time with one-off jobs. One thing you’ll notice is the complete lack of a tutorial. You mean I have to study the readme file? What’s up with that? In addition, the readme lacks descriptions of several game mechanics, so you have to do some trial and error while you play. You’ll be delivering around fifty goods to forty-four cities around North America, although there is really no difference in goods other than the type of trailer and your specific delivery point. You will find a job at a building listed on the minimap, pick a good and destination (precious goods and places farther away are worth more money), drive to that city, and unload the cargo (a very difficult process that involves a lot of backing up).

Though 18 Wheels of Steel: American Long Haul features an improved roster of cities, there are still some limitations. A Road geek such as myself holds the geography to a high standard, and in general 18 Wheels of Steel: American Long Haul does a good job presenting a pretty realistic depiction of North America. Most of your travel will be made on interstates, and almost all of the major interstate highways are present in the game. However, there are a number of notable missing cities: San Diego, Jacksonville, Denver, Baltimore, Milwaukee (I need to transport beer!), Denver, and all cities in Pennsylvania, Ohio, North Carolina, Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Virginia, Oregon, and Kentucky (plus others). I’m not expecting Flight Simulator or Google Earth level accuracy, but adding more major cities isn’t too much to ask I think. It probably wouldn’t be too hard to add at least simple cities at major intersections; having I-70 and I-25 intersect at a truck stop instead of the bustling metropolis of Denver is weird. Even weirder is the fact that Roswell is present but all of these cities are not. In addition, terrain is suspect as most areas are hilly. Driving winding roads along cliffs on the way to Miami shows that the developers think that California and Florida have the same topography. The inaccuracies take some of the realism out of the game, at least for an obsessive person such as myself.

Each city features a number of services to tailor to your needs. You can fill up at gas stations, buy new rigs at truck dealers, sleep and find drivers at hotels, and receive repairs at garages. There are also a number of companies in each town that offer jobs. Problem is most of these services are only present in urban areas, as 18 Wheels of Steel: American Long Haul lacks exits between major cities, with the exception of the occasional truck stop. This is, again, unrealistic, as (especially in the Eastern U.S.) there are plenty of exits with gas stations and hotels between major metropolises. This means you really have to plan your gas usage and look at your map ahead of time. Luckily, you can sleep in your cab (by stopping on the side of the road, setting the brake, and accelerating time) since your view will start to black out when you get sleepy (a neat feature).

Of course, the only way to get to these locations is to drive, and 18 Wheels of Steel: American Long Haul features a realistic driving model. Driving is intuitive, especially since you can enable automatic transmissions. There are a lot of buttons to press that activate turn signals, lights, the horn, wipers, cruise control, and the radio. 18 Wheels of Steel: American Long Haul also has multiple views to aid in precise driving. You do need to obey the rules of the road: don’t run red lights, follow the speed limit, and use your turn signals. If you don’t, cops positioned on the side of the road will issue tickets if you pass them after you’ve recently done an illegal act (your “wanted” level will decrease slowly over time). Tickets are unrealistically expensive ($6,000 for running a red light?!?) to driving within the rules is really important. It can be difficult, however, since lights change too fast: even if you are driving the speed limit, sometimes there is no way you can slow down in time. The AI traffic does a good job navigating through the game, so they aren’t generally the cause of your legal troubles. If you deliver your goods with no damage then you will earn your maximum income and be well on your way to founding a profitable company.

After a while, you will have enough money to hire other drivers to make money for you. You are hire other drivers at hotels, purchase new trucks and trailers, and negotiate contracts with clients. You must deliver for a company yourself before they will offer jobs to your drivers. The management aspects of 18 Wheels of Steel: American Long Haul gives you more to do than simply drive your truck and expands the appeal of the game. Even though 18 Wheels of Steel: American Long Haul is a realistic game, I think that most people will be very uninterested by this game. The game scales North America to make driving times less than in real life, but there is still a lot of empty space between cities that, frankly, is not very exciting to drive through. The inclusion of little towns on minor exits would have made driving across America a lot more interesting. I am in the target audience for this game, and even I was getting a bit bored with the long haul distances. So unless you really, really like truck driving, you can probably avoid this title.

IN CLOSING
Although 18 Wheels of Steel: American Long Haul is technically an accurate simulation, trips take too long to be very much fun. A trip that should take about 15 minutes takes 45, and most people probably won’t consider 45 minutes of interstate driving to be very enjoyable. 18 Wheels of Steel: American Long Haul offers 44 cities to visit, but there are some large cities missing and exits between cities are almost non-existent. The lack of a tutorial makes the learning curve steeper than it should be. The graphics are out of date and terrain is generic at best, completely wrong at worst. The management aspects of 18 Wheels of Steel: American Long Haul makes the game more interesting, but you’ll have to make some multi-hour hauls before you can really expand your business. 18 Wheels of Steel: American Long Haul is only $20 so there is a good amount of value for that price, but only a small niche of people will really enjoy this game. Even though the title is right up my alley, I found 18 Wheels of Steel: American Long Haul difficult to fully enjoy thanks to the drudgery of long-distance driving. After six versions, the 18 Wheels of Steel series still has room for improvement in a couple of key areas, one of them being fun.

Monday, January 07, 2008

Universe at War: Earth Assault Review

Universe at War: Earth Assault, developed by Petroglyph and published by Sega.
The Good: Three distinct races, well-designed and minimal user interface, both story-driven and global domination campaigns, units attack while moving
The Not So Good: Online campaign and ranked matches require $8/month Gold Live account, special abilities must be micromanaged, map size does not scale down for two-player global campaign battles, advanced unit behavior options are unavailable, some minor performace and pathfinding issues
What say you? Varied but well-balanced factions and a streamlined interface makes this a notable strategy game with ridiculous subscription limitations: 6/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
I’m not usually that big on doing previews or playing beta builds, mainly for time considerations (I get enough games to review let alone preview). I also prefer highlighting games you can actually buy instead of teasing you with subtle advertisements. I did get an invitation to the beta for Universe at War: Earth Assault, but never pursued it; betas are usually pretty boring unless you really like the game anyway. This real time strategy game comes to us from the same team that did Star Wars: Empire at War (I downloaded the demo but never got the game to review). This genre is one that is over-saturated on the PC to an extent, so new titles must provide some gameplay innovations to stack up favorable against the competition. Does Universe at War: Earth Assault?

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Universe at War: Earth Assault holds its own in the graphics and sound departments. The level of detail for the units is very nice, showing some neat animations and distinct units across the board. The environments, however, are quite bland and are filled with a lot of empty space, instead of being believable Earth locations. The effects and explosions are also neat to look at, and watching units get attacked and slowly disintegrate is excellent. I also enjoy looking at the Earth in the global campaigns: the sunlight shifts and lights come on in realistic locations. Universe at War does deliver some random slowdowns in performance, although I was able to run the game at “very high” settings with only occasional drops in frame rate (this is in DX9 using XP, by they way). Universe at War features decent voice acting that compliments each of the three races well, in addition to pleasing background music that wasn’t too invasive. Overall, Universe at War: Earth Assault doesn’t disappoint in terms of presentation.

ET AL.
Universe at War features a good amount of single-player content. The game comes with three story-driven campaigns that are unlocked in order, covering each of the three main races in the game (humans are disposed of early on). The missions are generally “escort,” “destroy,” or “defend” type missions, which is fine. Objective locations are clearly marked on the minimap, and the objectives themselves are permanently displayed in the corner of the screen. Like most campaigns, the tutorial is integrated into the story and it’s done well, slowly introducing new concepts over time. Campaign missions can be quite difficult; you will receive occasional reinforcements in missions that lack base building, but some enemies have special abilities that can wipe out all of your units (except for your hero) in a single shot. One thing that’s missing is the research tree; each side in the game has three branches of four levels each. Gaining a new bonus simply costs resources (there is only one resource in the game) and you are restricted to six (out of 12) of the techs in multiplayer but the bonuses are missing from single player campaigns entirely. The research bonuses here are typically negligible anyway, however, so its absence is just a minor issue. Universe at War also comes with a set of global campaign scenarios featuring a real-time risk backdrop of taking over the world. You’ll construct support buildings (resource collectors, etc) at occupied territories and battles will automatically commence when territory is invaded. Sadly, the map size does not adjust for the one-on-one conflicts of global conquest mode: playing a two-person battle on a map desgined for eight players is not very fun. Still, having this two-pronged approach greatly increases the value of the game and the single-player action alone should keep you busy for a while. You can also play skirmish battles that feature the twenty-five provinces from the campaigns if you just want instant action with no overlying strategic layer. When you start a skirmish match, the sides are represented by icons with no tool-tips so you don't really know who you are controlling until you start the game. Brilliant! Nevertheless, I like what Universe at War offers for the single-player experience.

And that brings us to multiplayer, and it looks like it’s time for another rant. First off, Universe at War requires you to validate your CD key through the Live service and takes up 5 GB of hard drive space, yet you still need to place the DVD in the drive every time you play. I thought we were past this maddening distrust of the end user. Universe at War features pretty generic multiplayer options: either deathmatch or conquest (flag-capturing) matches on the twenty-five campaign maps (one for each Earth region, sans Canada and Russia). You can include DEFCON rules to speed up the game; this option grants an entire level of research to every player at specified time intervals. You can also play the global campaign mode online; Universe at War will find appropriate human opponents to fight against. The first thing you’ll probably notice is that the online campaign and ranked matches are disabled for people who lack a Gold (that’s $8/month) Games for Windows LIVE membership. And when the XBOX 360 version gets released, you’ll be able to play them, but, of course, only if you pay extra for it. It’s a stupid decision by the developer and publisher to get suckered in by Microsoft. Nobody’s going to buy the game just because it says “Games for Windows” on the box, and more people probably won’t buy the game because of the limited features available to non-subscription players. This is a message to all game companies: let Microsoft flounder in their failed Games for Windows initiative and don’t allow them to drag you down with them. I realize it’s only $8 a month, but cutting multiplayer features for absolutely no reason other than to make money for Microsoft is a despicable practice that I hope stops immediately. Rant mode off.

Universe at War has an elegant and inconspicuous (the power of the thesaurus) user interface that allows access to all unit-producing buildings from anywhere on the map. You simply click the class of unit you want to build, and icons for each building and producible unit are provided. You can also access all the special abilities for every selected unit, which cuts down on the micromanagement required considerably. All movement orders are attack moves by default as well; units will engage but not stop on their way to the destination. There are a couple of issues with the controls, however. If you queue multiple buildings, the constructor units will forget about previously ordered structures and they must be manually instructed to renew assembly. Selecting all units only occasionally works (more often for units on the screen) for some reason. Pathfinding can also be an occasional problem, with some units getting lost or not using the most efficient trail to an objective. I would also like the game to zoom out more. Still, these are relatively minor issues in an otherwise great system.

One of the highlights of Universe at War: Earth Assault (using the full name makes my review longer) is the three distinct races in the game. Though most aspects of each of the game’s three races are conventional in nature, each side has its own innovations that alter gameplay strategies. All sides get a standard building tree that produce standard units (weak infantry, strong infantry, armored units, flying units, defensive turrets), but the changes have a significant impact on gameplay and overall strategy. The “theme” of each race is consistent throughout their design, from the changes in resource collection to army makeup to tactics. The Hierarchy relies on slow, powerful units and its walker, a moving (albeit slowly) unit producer/turret of fear. You can outfit a number of hard-points on the walkers with offensive weaponry, defensive armor, or other bonuses like increased production rates. This race gives a lot of flexibility to the player: will you use your walkers for offense or defense, or both? The robot-like Novus focus on lots of quickly-produced units and cloaked transportation points (called flow conduits) that allow for almost instantaneous travel between them. Unlike the Hierarchy that likes to pound you into oblivion, the Novus is more suited for quick, lightning-fast attacks. Lying somewhere in the middle is the Masari, a more traditional race that features light and dark energy modes intended for quick or slow attacks (presumably to counter the Novus and Hierarchy, respectively). The Masari also features architects that can focus their energy on a specific structure, increasing its effectiveness in a nod to Supreme Commander. All three races are designed well and work in the framework of the game. It’s nice to see multiple races that aren’t just carbon copies of each other with different skins.

In general, the AI of Universe at War is good: units will automatically engage nearby enemy units, although the detection radius is a little bit too small: while several units in the same formation will attack, some right next to them will not. The units don’t have “stance” settings to make them more aggressive (one of the disadvantages of such as streamlined interface). While the special abilities must be micromanaged, the interface makes it easy to do so once you have an entire group selected; units with the same special ability will be grouped together so you can queue up several in a row. Most of the special abilities are really cool and can turn the tide of battle quickly. Speaking of quickly, the gameplay of Universe at War is on the fast-paced side of the equation and the expedient manner helps offset the speed at which you can complete your base. The relatively limited number of buildings you have at your disposal limits your strategies a bit, but you are still given some wiggle room with your research tree (at least in multiplayer). It is impressive watching sides collide, and the unique nature of each of the races means conflicting strategies will almost always collide. The enemy AI is very aggressive at medium or higher difficulties, providing a very competent foe in skirmish and global campaign matches (maybe a little too competent for some). Despite the numerous innovations, Universe of War still plays out like a classic real time strategy game. So while the uniqueness of the game shines, the limitations, whether artificial or related to game design, bring this title back down to Earth.

IN CLOSING
Universe at War: Earth Assault certainly has some unique ideas, and because of that it’s a noteworthy strategy game. The Hierarchy’s walkers, the Novus’ fast massed movement, and the Masari’s compromise make for some interesting and surprisingly well-balanced battles. The game comes with a significant amount of single player action, with three story-driven campaigns and four global conquest scenarios. The interface is well designed and lets you access anything from anywhere. Veteran players might not like having reduced control over their units, though, as formations and stances are missing. The potential for multiplayer fun is definitely present, but sadly Universe at War got wooed into blocking most of the multiplayer features to people who aren’t willing to spend $8 a month on a LIVE Gold subscription. I know I’m not. Still, Universe at War is a fun and entertaining real time strategy game; if you don’t mind missing some multiplayer features then it’s certainly a recommended title.

Friday, January 04, 2008

Stranger Review

Stranger, developed and published by Fireglow Games.
The Good: Very interesting magic system, malleable user interface, spells are cast automatically for reduced micromangement
The Not So Good: Sporadic pathfinding, tedious pace, limited multiplayer features, difficult
What say you? A generally good strategic role-playing game with a few limitations: 6/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
Because it’s my favorite genre, I’m usually pretty informed about upcoming strategy games. So it’s a bit strange to be strangely surprised about a strange game called Stranger, strangely enough (there, I think that’s out of my system). I am familiar with the developer, as Fireglow is responsible for the Sudden Strike series, one of the first purely tactical strategy games when most everyone was concerned with resource collecting and the like. Stranger combines classic tactical gaming with role-playing elements, something that’s become trendy in recent times. Are the RPG additions purely a gimmick, or do they enhance the basic gameplay?

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Stranger features some good 3-D graphics and sound. The game is played from a fixed isometric perspective, so you won’t get up close and personal with the units; still, they are detailed and animated well enough from a distance. The effects are average for the role-playing and strategy genres: some neat spell effects and the general chaos of combat are present and accounted for. The cut scenes are meant to look like a comic book, a presentation method that’s becoming tired and unoriginal. I was able to crank the level of detail all the way up and experience some interesting lighting and shadow effects with no slow down, so that’s a plus. While Strange might not have the extreme level of detail present in some other games, it does look good enough for a contemporary game. The sound is basic at best. The only voiced dialogue is in the cut scenes, requiring a disturbing amount of reading during conversations. The background music is appropriate but not spectacular. So in the end, Stranger holds its own in the graphics and sound departments.

ET AL.
Stranger can best be described as a role-playing hack-and-slash with more characters at your disposal and some strategy conventions. The game comes with fourteen single-player missions; this may not sound like much, but the pace of the game is very slow and each mission usually comes with multiple primary and secondary objectives. Your characters and items will carry over from mission to mission, although you’ll sometimes be given different starting avatars. The story is pretty generic, but nobody really pays attention to that anyway. The objectives are usually “go to” or “attack” quests; side quests and exploring levels will usually grant some cool weapons that make it worth the journey. Most of the levels in Stranger are multi-tiered, usually a surface level tied to underground levels through caves and such. While interesting, it doesn’t impact the gameplay that much other than making a level larger in scope. Stranger comes with some very disappointing multiplayer options. While the game does support LAN and known IP games on nine maps, there is no matchmaking so you can’t search for games. As a person that enjoys multiplayer gaming, it’s a sad omission. There's no excuse for this limitation with today's technology. I'm getting tired of playing otherwise decent games that lack proper multiplayer support.

It’s clear that the developers of Stranger came from the real time strategy background because the user interface is excellent. You are free to move and resize any of the windows scattered around the screen, including the minimaps and command interface. Since you’ll typically be controlling no more than 10-15 units, each unit gets their own avatar in the upper left and information window in the upper right that can display weapon, experience, and spell details. The interface in Stranger makes it a snap to find everyone under your control and controlling the game is so easy. This is a far cry from typical role-playing games with their huge and obstructive inventory screens. The controls are typical RTS fare: left click to select, and right click to move. Because there are more commands and options than most strategy games, you’ll need to memorize some of the keyboard shortcuts to reduce some of the clicking.

Units can be told to assault (attack move), attack, get items, rotate, change behavior, dismount, repair, take off, land, follow, hire, stop, and keep a formation. Thankfully, they will do most of this automatically if you set the correct behavior (this includes picking up dropped loot). Unfortunately, units will not attack using the default right-click move order (you need to use an assault command); if you are walking and being attacked, wouldn’t you automatically retaliate? All moves should engage enemy units by default, and having to press the attack move key before issuing simple movement commands every time gets annoying. In addition, the pathfinding of Stranger is poor at best. Units will get stuck or just not move on occasion. This is not that big of a deal when you are controlling only a handful of units, but when big armies can’t stay together, we have a problem. Each unit can carry a variety of weapons, including their fists, crossbows, swords, and armor. Units gain experience through combat in five areas: melee combat, ranged weapons, dodging, crafting, and magic. Special abilities can be bought using experience; examples include sword mastery, fast regeneration, double casting spells, and changing field intensity or radius.

Stranger features an incredibly intriguing spell and magic system. Spells can only be cast in a magic field, magic fields are produced by holding crystals, and crystals are taken as loot from defeated enemies. Each spell in the game belongs to one of seven color groups, and in order to cast them, the character must be surrounded by only those color crystals. The basic crystals (red, blue, and green) make up the entry-level spells, while crystals can be combined to form fields that allow for advanced and powerful spells (magenta is a combination of red and blue spells, for example). Crystals are held in a common pool and then manually distributed to your characters so that they can use their spells. As you can imagine, there is a whole realm of strategy just surrounding crystal usage. Since you can counter enemy spells with your own crystals, the best approach is to “overpower” your enemy’s fields while still allowing your mages to cast their spells. This does introduce some micromanagement into the equation, since you must distribute all of the crystals yourself, but since units will automatically attack and use spells on their own, you have time to do it. The amount of crystals doesn’t seem to matter, just that you have more than the enemy. It is hard to see the radii of the crystal fields; I would rather see a simple circle than the funky and hard-to-see beams of light that are used. I really like this scheme as it allows for some really interesting strategy, countering enemy plans while allowing for your powerful spells to be cast. The ramifications for multiplayer are outstanding, which makes the meager online features only more unacceptable.

In addition to the crystals, you will also pick up weapons along your way that will be added to your inventory. You only have finite storage space, so you will either need to capture depots or melt items into liquid metal (come with me if you want to live!) to form new weapons at a forge. While you will typically start each level with a couple of heroes, you will need to hire some reinforcements with crystals as payment. There is generally a good selection of lower-level cronies to pick from. You can also take control of “cretions” (yeah, spell check does not like that word), which serve as spell buffers to prevent enemy attacks. Overall, Stranger is a great game, thanks to some innovative mechanics. It’s not quite a RPG and not quite a RTS, but it is fun and would feel like more of a complete title with a couple of enhancements.

IN CLOSING
Stranger introduces a couple of seemingly unique features that makes it worth playing. The spell system alone is great and allows for some really interesting gameplay. The user interface is useful and modifiable, providing detailed information without taking up the entire screen. The AI does a good job engaging the enemies (assuming you issued an assault command) and using their spells so your attention can be turned towards other tasks. Fortunately, the problems of Stranger are few: pathfinding and multiplayer. If only these two issues were fixed, then Stranger would be a completely enjoyable game. As it stands, Stranger should be commended for offering an inventive title in a world of copycats; most people will probably be able to look past the minor faults and enjoy the unique gameplay.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Democracy 2 Review

Democracy 2, developed and published by Positech Games.
The Good: Sophisticated cause-and-effect system, good interface despite crowded screen, easily modded
The Not So Good: Can be quite daunting, interruptive tutorials
What say you? A complex but ultimately enjoyable political simulation: 6/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
With election season coming full tilt, the nation’s attention has turned towards the political spectrum. Cashing in on this fervor is Democracy 2, a sequel to the two-year-old Democracy. This is a simulation that shows how difficult it is to keep everyone happy: you can enact policies and change their funding, which will influence what people think about you. This newer version features more realistic voters, a cabinet, varying political costs, and an overall improved simulation. Or does it?

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Democracy 2 is presented in the 2-D view that the original game used: all of the factors, policies, and other data is kept intact. However, the graphics have been updated and streamlined to be easier on the eyes. In general, Democracy 2 looks slightly better than its predecessor, featuring better transitions, improved icons, and the like. Information is presented as well as it could be, with flow arrows displaying positive and negative relationships and light gray backgrounds for population levels in each member group. This makes it easy to spot which areas need improvement in order to sway a group of voters. Considering how much information is given to the user, I can’t imagine the interface being designed any better. Sound in the game is minimal at best and can be ignored. So overall, Democracy 2 takes the logical step forward while keeping the excellent user interface intact.

ET AL.
Your goal in Democracy 2 is to get re-elected as the leader of a fictitious country, and you do this by enacting laws and adjusting funding that will sway your desired constituents. The game comes with a tutorial that teaches you the basics of the game; despite the potential overwhelming nature of the game, Democracy 2 is actually pretty easy to learn. The tutorial messages also extend to the main game mode and tend to disrupt gameplay too often; putting the messages in the corner instead of requiring the user to manually close each one would have worked a lot better. Democracy 2 comes with nine countries based off real-world nations, each with pre-set starting conditions and recommended party names. While you can certainly mod in a country of your choosing, it would have been nice to give you the options in-game for customizing or randomly generating your nation. Speaking of mods, Democracy 2 lets you change pretty much anything in the game; there are already instructions on how to add new content; the potential for future game expansion is quite high.

Your nation is broken up into six areas of concern: foreign policy, welfare, economy, taxation, public services, law and order, and transport. Each area has a set of conditions (like air quality or violent crime) that are affected by policies you enact (or are already active when you start a new game). Each of these conditions in turn affects the voters that are divided into twenty groups. Complicating things is the fact that almost everyone is a member of more than one group and each has a level of “dedication” to their groups. This means that a retired liberal farmer might enjoy your state retirement benefits but dislike your religious views more and not vote for you. The end result is a seemingly complicated but intuitive system that produces some realistic results. To show how sophisticated the unlying system of Democracy 2 is, this example shows all of the things that affect the Gross National Product. Yes, that's sixteen different aspects of your nation that influence one result (and there can be more if you enact new policies). This means you really have to think about the impact of your actions, as the effects are far-reaching. Luckily, the effects are clearly given and Democracy 2 comes with a bunch of other information, like budgetary pie charts, poll results, and detailed information on profiled people.

Most of your time will be spent enacting new policies. This is done using political capital generated by your cabinet. There is a cabinet member representing each of the six groups, and the happier they are, the most capital you gain. This is different from Democracy that limited you to two per turn; now, the better you do the more policies you can start (makes sense). In addition, the more controversial the policy is, the higher the cost. There is a whole crap load (technical term) of policies to choose from: income tax, bus lanes, pollution controls, health services, recycling, and lots more. Once you enact a new policy, you choose the level of funding; Democracy 2 gives you instant feedback on its effects as you adjust the slider. Obviously, you have to take the overall budget into consideration, but I was usually functioning with a positive cash flow through most of the game. Usually, each new game starts with a number of critical conditions that must be taken care of immediately (like hospital overcrowding, infectious disease, binge drinking, and homelessness). After that, it’s time to pay attention to the largest groups and pander to their desires.

At the end of each turn (which simulates three months of real time), you will typically have to make a choice on an important issue, such as terrorist deportation or same-sex marriage. Since you are forced to make a decision and its effects are not given, it’s somewhat a guessing game as you need to gauge the effects of each choice on your most popular groups. You will also need to make two promises before each election that will need to be fulfilled in order to keep your people happy. The end result is a very challenging and realistic simulation of political life. Make no mistake: Democracy 2 is very, very difficult game and it’s hard to make it past the first election for beginning players. However, the gameplay is satisfying to someone interesting in the inner workings of the political spectrum, and it’s fun (in a nerdy sense) to see how difficult it is to correct national dilemmas.


IN CLOSING
Democracy 2 is everything you would expect in a sequel: an expansion upon the original game. This title keeps the spirit of the original intact while adding new features that make the simulation even more realistic. Even with all of the things to worry about in the game, the user interface makes it very easy to see cause and effect. The game can get repetitive, especially if you play countries with the same general problems, but there is enough content to make you focus on different things each game. The random events also serve to spruce up the action a bit. The potential for third-party modifications extends the life of the product even further. Still, Democracy 2 can be quite daunting and difficult to new players. I like Democracy 2, but it’s such a niche game that widespread appeal is unlikely. However, if you’ve been looking for a superb abstraction of political operations, then Democracy 2 is definitely a game you should look at.